What happens when a record gets broken?
Kai Burrell thought he knew.
For years, Eddie Robinson — his coach, the Grambling icon who turned a small rural Louisiana university into the premier destination for black college football players — held the all-time record for wins in Division I football, piling up 408 victories from 1941-97.
But when Robinson lost the record to Joe Paterno last year, Burrell shrugged.
“I was thinking, if anybody does break coach Rob’s record, it’s good that it’s Joe Paterno,” said Burrell, a defensive lineman at Grambling from 1990-94. “That was how I felt at the time.”
Monday morning, in the ongoing fallout of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal (and cover-up), the NCAA dealt Penn State football a series of severe and crippling blows: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, scholarship limitations and one other very important thing.
It forced Penn State to vacate every win since 1998.
With that, Paterno — who died in January, shortly after his firing — ceded the record back to Robinson, who himself had died in 2007.
So what now? How does Grambling feel, now that Robinson has regained the record Paterno took?
Perhaps Jake Reed, the Grambling alumnus and 12-year NFL veteran, summed it up as well as anyone who loved Robinson so deeply.
“I’m proud. I’m happy for my coach and for Grambling. But I’m not going to strike up the band about it,” Reed said.
“It’s a sad day for Penn State. I don’t know how you rejoice in that.”
And what would Robinson think? Would it please him to have the record again?
Maybe. But probably not.
“You don’t want to be given the record. You want to earn it,” Burrell said. “I think that’s what coach Robinson would say.
“Coach was a competitor. Every day, at the end of practice, he would tell us: ‘We live in America. America is the greatest country in the world. But it’s also the most competitive. In football, and in life, you’ve got to be a competitor — each and every day.’”
Last week, before the NCAA announcement, the city of Grambling took many by surprise, revealing its petition to remove wins from Paterno’s record — a transparent ploy to give the record back to Robinson, the favorite son.
Monday afternoon, Grambling Mayor Ed Jones did express happiness at the NCAA penalty, noting that when tourists visit the Eddie G. Robinson Museum in town, they’ll learn about a McKinley High graduate who became (and now remains) the winningest coach in Division I.
“But there is a bigger picture,” Jones said. “Our hearts and our prayers are with ... those who have been affected by this ordeal, the victims of this terrible tragedy. And we pray that they will be able to rebound.”
As for Robinson’s former players, they felt an odd mixture of pride in their coach, but uneasiness in how he returned to the top.
Burrell, a former college assistant who’s now at Huntington High in Shreveport, summed up Monday’s record reversal like this: “Coach Paterno got it on the field. He earned it. But at the same time, he didn’t do it the right way. ... I don’t know. It’s a gray area.”
Former defensive back Darren Chambers, a McKinley graduate who played for Robinson in the early ’90s, added: “In reality, Joe Paterno is always going to have 409 wins. It just won’t be in the record books.”
Chambers did mention that many of his fellow alumni found the timing of Sandusky’s grand jury indictment in November — one week after Paterno broke Robinson’s record — unfortunate at best.
Reed, who has three children, said he used Monday’s news as a teaching moment.
“Coach used to tell us that if you don’t do things the right way, it will eventually come to light,” Reed said. “That was the conversation I had with my son: ‘Don’t ever embarrass your family.’ ”
In fact, Grambling alumni said they spent much of their time Monday remembering Robinson for who he was — not for the record he once again held.
They remembered Robinson strolling through the dorms every morning, cowbell in hand, making sure that all his young men were awake and headed to class.
They remembered a man who taught his players how to tie a Windsor knot, who made them remove their hats indoors and say “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” who kept his players’ cafeteria cards every day, for more than just safe keeping.
Wake up late, and you didn’t get your cafeteria card. That meant no breakfast, no lunch, no dinner — and after practice, you had to run.
“He always taught us to be responsible, well-groomed young men in society,” Chambers said. “He said, ‘Wherever you go, you represent Grambling.’ We always dressed in a shirt and tie. Always. That made you feel important and respected.”
As of Monday morning, Grambling felt respected yet again. Robinson, in death, regained a record he’d already held before.
But in the wake of the Penn State scandal, the record felt different.
It was, in many senses, broken.
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